South Jersey hospital fights C. diff with ultraviolet light

     A New Jersey hospital is using a new machine to reduce patient exposure to the bacterium Clostridium difficile, known as C. diff. (Photo provided)

    A New Jersey hospital is using a new machine to reduce patient exposure to the bacterium Clostridium difficile, known as C. diff. (Photo provided)

    Some hospitals are putting hard-to-clean germs under ultraviolet scrutiny.


    Timothy Bowers, a director of infection prevention and control at Inspira Health Network in South Jersey, works to make sure patients leave the hospital healthier without catching anything extra during their stay.

    Many medical centers have driven down their rates of health care-acquired infections, but Bowers said Clostridium difficile — or C. diff — makes the cleanup job particularly hard.

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    The bacteria produce spores that can live on bed rails, the TV remote control and other “high-touch” areas in a patient room.

    “C. diff is really good at staying in the environment,” Bowers said. “If somebody picks it up on their hands and goes anywhere near their mouth, it ends up getting into your body. It can cause diarrhea and lots of problems that are hard to deal with.”

    Inspira is adding a new ultraviolet machine to its routine of deep cleaning and disinfecting with bleach.

    Stepping out of a patient’s room, a cleaning crew switches on the nearly 6-foot robot remotely. Pulses of blue light stream from its circle of tall vertical light bulbs. When the robot has killed the C. diff bacteria, sensors placed around the room shut off the machine.

    “Your eyes — you’d get a welder’s burn if you were to stare at this within the room. Same thing with your skin, you’d get a slight burn on your skin,” Bowers said. “So you leave the room and shut the door, and it kind smells like a tanning booth or a freshly ironed shirt.”

    Ultraviolet light kills all sorts of bacteria and viruses in the lab or Petri dish.

    The ‘disco germ robot’

    Janet Haas, director of infection prevention and control at Westchester Medical Center in New York, said now there is also evidence that using ultraviolet light makes a difference to patients.

    In a study at the Westchester hospital, the team noted a 17 percent decrease in C. diff infections after that hospital began cleaning rooms with UV light.

    “The particular type of UV that we are using has a flashing light bulb, so people call it the disco germ robot,” Haas said.

    At Inspira, some employees have nicknamed their robot “the flux capacitor” after the time machine in the movie “Back to Future.”

    One UV light machine can cost as much as $120,000, Bowers said.

    Haas’ team has not measured the cost effectiveness of using UV light for disinfection. But she said each case of C. diff. can tack on another $8,000 to $11,000 to a patient’s hospital stay.

    In the Westchester study, using the machine added as much as 50 minutes to the time it takes to clean a room. The actual disinfection takes just 15 to 18 minutes, but the cleaners sometimes had to go and get the machine, wheel it into the room, and set up blackout curtains to avoid distracting patients and staffers.

    MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston also has studied UV light as a way to reduce patient infections with C. diff. Researchers there found that after disinfecting with UV light, C. diff spores had decreased by 97 percent on high-touch areas such as bed rails. Using bleach reduced the spores by 70 percent.

    Roy Chemaly, infectious disease specialist at MD Anderson, said C. diff can be a concern – and hard to treat — for older people with a weakened immune system.

    “We take special precautions with patients with this kind of infection,” Chemaly said. “You have to wear the gowns, the gloves and sometimes a mask.” And patient rooms are cleaned more thoroughly when someone is diagnosed with C. diff.

    Doctors sometimes need more than one antibiotic to treat the infection, and there is a high risk that the infection will return.

    “At that point it gets serious,” Chemaly said.

    The bacteria secrete toxins that cause diarrhea or inflammation of the colon.

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